A deeply divided Brazil goes to the polls Sunday, with Trump-like front-runner stirring passions

Far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro flashes two thumbs up as he poses for a photo with cadets during a ceremony marking Army Day on April 19, 2018 in Brazil.
(Eraldo Peres / Associated Press)

As Brazilians prepare to go to the polls Sunday, they seem to have had enough of politics as usual.

The left-wing Workers’ Party, which headed the country for almost 13 years and was credited with pulling Brazil out of poverty and into economic prosperity, fell from grace after several of its members were among the more than 100 high-ranking politicians implicated in the billion-dollar Car Wash corruption scandal and the economy began to founder.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the party’s golden boy who left the second term of his presidency in 2010 with an 87% approval rating, was found guilty last year of accepting $1.2 million in bribes from a contractor. Last month, Lula, who had been staging a comeback from jail, was ruled ineligible to run by Brazil’s top electoral court.


Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in the first half of her second term and convicted by senators of breaking Brazil’s fiscal responsibility law before the 2014 presidential elections by making it look as if the economy wasn’t spiraling downward after her first term.

With the country still in shambles under Michel Temer, Rousseff’s conservative vice president who took her place when she was removed from office two years ago, Brazilians have become exasperated with what they see as the old political class.

It’s that disdain that has propelled far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the front of the presidential race. While not a newcomer to politics — the former army captain has been a member of Congress representing Rio de Janeiro for almost three decades — Bolsonaro is considered apart from other top politicians because of his blunt talk, even though some of it is seen as hateful toward women, black people and those in the LGBTQ community.

Bolsonaro’s political incorrectness, which has garnered comparisons to President Trump, has bolstered his candidacy in a country where many voters consider him their only shot at a new start. The latest poll from the Brazilian institute Datafolha shows 35% supporting Bolsonaro, who has said that women should be paid less because they get pregnant and that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.

He is expected to face Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who has 22% of the projected vote, in a runoff this month, where predictions show the two would be running neck and neck.

Despite his near-constant lead in the polls, Bolsonaro faces spirited opposition, with almost 4 million women around Brazil organizing online in a Facebook group called Women United Against Bolsonaro. The group has led nonpartisan protests across the country, with hundreds of thousands of Brazilians marching against the candidate they say they would never vote for.

Earlier in the campaign, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen at a rally in the town of Juiz de Fora by a man who told police that God told him to do it. Adelio Bispo de Oliveira has since been charged under Brazil’s National Security Law with committing a politically motivated assault.

The stabbing and the protests against Bolsonaro have not hindered his campaign. The far-right candidate has steadily gained steam in the polls since undergoing emergency surgery to repair intestinal damage and stop internal bleeding. In two Ibope polls after the protests, his support from women voters increased from 18% to 24%, and then to 26%.

Langlois is a special correspondent.